The ‘Science’ That Claims Women Are Inferior To Men Is Bogus

U.S. and UK book covers for ‘Inferior’ by Angela Saini
A new book by British science journalist Angela Saini seeks to debunk the bad science about gender differences.

If women are as good as men at science and math, why aren’t there more female scientists and mathematicians?”

“Women are monogamous; men have a naturally roving eye. It’s just science.”

“Women are more nurturing and better at taking care of children. Science says so.”

Sound familiar? Tropes like these — masqueraded as “science” — have long proliferated the idea that women are inherently different from men. But as outlined in Angela Saini’s riveting new book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the new research that’s rewriting the story, scientific justifications for why women are perhaps just a tiny bit less clever and a tiny bit more suited to caregiving are bunk.

Tropes masqueraded as ‘science’ have long proliferated the idea that women are inherently different from men.

The book’s title takes on a scientific myth that’s been around at least since 1881. That year, a female reader wrote to Charles Darwin asking if women were equal to men. Darwin wrote back: “There seems to me to be a great difficulty from the laws of inheritance, (if I understand these laws rightly) in [women] becoming the intellectual equals of man.”

Darwin’s evolutionary ways, it seems, only went so far.

Science has always been pitted against feminism

Darwin was far from alone — not back then and not even now. Saini, an Oxford educated engineer-turned-science writer is out to prove the deep misogyny behind much of the gender science we hold dear. Her interest in gender differences was first sparked when writing a story about menopause. “I realized that science just didn’t get women. We are not the weaker sex,” she tells me.

Her book exposes the bad science, shoddy studies, and prejudiced research that has long fed these stereotypes.

She adds:

“We always think of science as neutral. But the fact is that science is often full of prejudice, because scientists are so often full of prejudice. There is nothing in biology that says women can’t do anything a man can do. I am not trying to say that one sex is better than the other. But tiny differences between the sexes have been exaggerated to keep women in their place.”

New research, as noted by the book’s subtitle, tells a different story.

In one study at Yale University, over 100 scientists were asked to assess a resume submitted for a vacancy for a laboratory manager. Every resume was identical, except that half were submitted under a recognizably female name and the other half under a recognizably male one. Scientists rated those with female names significantly lower in competence and employability. They were also less willing to mentor them, and offered lower salaries. Most telling of all, male and female scientists were equally likely to exhibit bias against women applicants.

‘Tiny differences between the sexes have been exaggerated to keep women in their place.’

Saini also illuminates the story of Eliza Gamble, whose 1894 book The Evolution of Woman: An Inquiry into the Dogma of her Inferiority to Man took on Darwin. Gamble marshaled a slew of arguments and studies to show that women weren’t naturally inferior; they just seemed that way because they hadn’t been allowed the chance to develop their talents. Gamble’s arguments helped the early suffragettes battle for the vote. And yet, as Saini highlights, she made no impact in the scientific world.

Angela Saini

Gamble’s theories were proved time and time again, by female scientists whose research was similarly ignored. In Inferior, Saini analyses a flood of flawed studies, often conducted by men, which were not replicated or too hastily accepted. Repeating an experiment is considered key in science but it’s often too expensive or difficult.

A 2000 paper by Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge psychologist and neuroscientist, claimed to prove that there are noticeable sex differences in the way newborn babies behave.

Baron-Cohen went on to elaborate his research in a follow-up book, claiming:

“People with the female brain make the most wonderful counsellors, primary school teachers, nurses, carers, therapists, social workers, mediators, group facilitators or personnel staff … People with the male brain make the most wonderful scientists, engineers, mechanics, technicians, musicians, architects, electricians, plumbers, taxonomists, catalogists, bankers, toolmakers, programmers or even lawyers.”

As Saini dryly notes about the researcher’s conclusion: “It’s difficult not to notice that the male brain appears better suited to higher paying, higher status fields like computer programming while the female brain seems to fit best with lower status jobs, such as a carer.”

Ideas like this have become inescapable everywhere. In 2005, Harvard University president Lawrence Summers said that the scarcity of female scientists could be attributed to biological differences between the sexes. His “suggestion” was defended by Baron-Cohen and his ilk.

But a later study by Cambridge University neuroscientist Melissa Hines found only the tiniest gaps between the mathematical ability, spatial visualization, and verbal fluency of boys and girls. Her study, though, did not go viral.

“It’s hard to separate our opinion from the data. The human mind wants to have things that define maleness and things that define femaleness,” Hines is quoted in Saini’s book as saying.

Flawed science has routinely made it into the media and pop culture. The 1978 issue of Playboy had a cover story which trumpeted, “Do men need to cheat on their women? A new science says yes.” Studies, mostly led or conducted by men that showed women as chaste, modest caregivers, have long been latched onto by the media — never mind their accuracy. Meanwhile, studies that have bucked stereotypes, often conducted by women scientists, have often been ignored.

Flawed science has routinely made it into the media and pop culture.

While writing Inferior, Saini traveled the world to dig out these overlooked studies. For years, scientists have claimed that women were biologically more suited to caregiving than men — even pointing to gender norms in other species to support this — allowing human fathers to sneak out of childcare duties. But when California-based primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy studied primates and hunter gatherer tribes, she found that childcare was shared by fathers, siblings, and grandmothers, not just the mother. Our ancestors were probably more evolved than we are.

As Saini writes: “The Victorian ideal that Darwin based his understanding of women upon — mother at home, taking care of the children, father bringing home the bacon — is left out in the cold.”

Other female anthropologists, Saini goes on to write, are now busting the myth that males were always the main inventors, tool users, and hunters in prehistoric times. Women are supposed to be “the weaker sex,” but when it comes to longevity and surviving illness, women outlast men worldwide. And compounding new research shows that women can be every bit as polygamous and promiscuous as men, if society allows them to be. If women weren’t as sexual as men, argues Saini in her book, why would so many cultures adopt practices like genital mutilation and keep women “in their place” by harassment and rape?

Culture, not biology

Inferior makes a convincing argument that all these myth-busting studies have been ignored by a sexist establishment that was threatened by the idea of women gaining power. It’s culture, not biology, which has kept women behind.

Recent world events back Saini. At the World Science Conference, physicist Dr Veronika Hubeny was on a “manel,” where a male moderator explained her own theories to her and did not allow her to speak. So blatant was the mansplaining that a female member of the audience got up and protested: “Let her speak!”

“These kinds of manels are so common in science,” says Saini, who says she has often been the only woman in the room at both school science classes, and later at Oxford.

Even when women do enter science, they usually drop out. Saini’s first book, Geek Nation, was about science in India. India is one of the few countries in the world where engineering classes are full of women. “Culturally women are encouraged to go into engineering because it’s such a respected profession,” says Saini. But, as she points out, most drop out within a few years of graduating, weighed down by family responsibilities. “There is this expectation that a woman should do everything — work, run the house, rear the kids, and look after the elderly…eventually they collapse, exhausted.”

Saini goes on to say, her frustration evident:

“How lazy is it to assume that there are fewer women in science because it’s biological! Oxford only allowed women to graduate in 1920, Cambridge 28 years later. Women are only just catching up after years of being pushed down.”

What’s the solution to sexist, bad science? Saini suggests a social science approach.

“The fact is that when you study humans, it is very difficult to get a clear picture, because we are all complex individuals. Just because one woman is bad at math, it does not mean all of them are.”

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